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THE PIVOT: Farwell turns to 'bubble tours' as COVID border closures keep day sailors away from Nova Scotia

The J Farwell Sailing Co. offers several options out of Halifax Harbour, including charters and sunset wine and cheese tours.
The J Farwell Sailing Co. offers several options out of Halifax Harbour, including charters and sunset wine and cheese tours. - SaltWire Network

The Players:

Jeff Farwell grew Murphy’s Cable Wharf for a decade, merged it with regional enterprise Ambassatours six years ago and sold his stake in 2017. He now runs his own sailboat touring operation, J Farwell Sailing Co.

The Problem:

With Nova Scotia closed to other provinces and the rest of the world because of the COVID-19 pandemic, J Farwell Sailing must find new customers to replace the tourists who will not be coming this year.

The Pivot:

J Farwell Sailing is slashing prices in half for the month of June and marketing “bubble group” tours to people who have already been in close physical contact.


On this warm, sunny afternoon, a 45-foot Beneteau Oceanis sailboat is docked beside the Stubborn Goat pub along the Halifax waterfront, the crew busy getting everything ready for its first sailing tour of the season on Thursday.

It’s a beauty. A teak deck. Three staterooms below. With a 57-horsepower inboard engine and spinnaker sail, the J Farwell can average about 7.5 knots, or roughly 14 kilometres per hour.

During the three previous seasons the J Farwell Sailing Co. has offered tours on this vessel, people have come from many countries to spend a few hours as members of the crew or to sip fine wine and nibble on cheese and charcuterie.

It’s the stuff of more than a few romantic moments.

“We’ve had a ton of proposals during the wine and cheese tours at sunset,” says Jeff Farwell, the founder of this fledgling tourism operation.

“People book the entire boat.”

Getting Bluenosers to sail

This year, though, J Farwell Sailing is in uncharted waters. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the pocket books of many people hard, so it’s unclear how many will be ready – or able – to pay for sailing tours.

There’s also the fact that the border is closed to American and international tourists, and even people from neighbouring provinces can’t yet come for a quick trip to Nova Scotia.

Last year, half of the people who took sailing tours aboard the J Farwell were from outside the Halifax area, many of them tourists from other countries and provinces who were staying in hotels and eager to experience something special during their vacations.

Now, that market for J Farwell Sailing is gone, likely for most if not all of this tourism season.

But Farwell, who has invested roughly $600,000 to buy this sailboat and equip it, is optimistic.

Cheaper tours and a larger strategy

The J Farwell Sailing Co. offers several options out of Halifax Harbour, including charters and sunset wine and cheese tours.
The J Farwell Sailing Co. offers several options out of Halifax Harbour, including charters and sunset wine and cheese tours.

A seasoned entrepreneur, he grew Murphy’s Cable Wharf for a decade before it merged with Ambassatours six years ago. He then served as that company’s president before selling his ownership stake in 2017 and starting up this venture.

He led tour operations through the SARS epidemic of 2003 and the H1N1 influenza scare six years later.

Admittedly, the pandemic is far more serious, but Farwell has a strategy to face it head on.

Throughout the month of June, J Farwell Sailing is slashing the price of all its charter tours in half. Two-hour group tours that usually cost $1,500 are being offered for $750.

Farwell is focusing his marketing on “bubble groups,” people who have been in close proximity to one another throughout the pandemic and so can safely go on tours together without having to worry about catching the virus from one another.

“By doing the bubble group tours, people who might have been worried about being on bigger tours . . . don’t have to worry as much,” says Farwell. “They don’t even have to wear masks. We’ll wear masks.”

“We only take 12 passengers per tour . . . so it doesn’t take much to have a full boat,”

J Farwell Sailing is also upping its cleaning and disinfecting protocols, pledging to wipe down all high-traffic areas after every tour and to spray disinfectant on all personal floatation devices.

“Because our boat is a fairly sizeable yacht, we can do social distancing on the boat,” says Farwell.

“We’re trying to limit the risk so that people who come here can enjoy themselves.”

By offering specials, ensuring the boat is properly cleaned and taking other safety precautions to put customers’ minds at ease, Farwell thinks he can grow the local market enough to offset the drop in international tourists and Canadians coming from other provinces.

So far, J Farwell Sailing has had fewer advance bookings than in previous years. Farwell figures this summer will see more last-minute bookings as locals check out the weather before committing to a tour.

But there is a tour booked for J Farwell’s first sailing of the season.

On Thursday afternoon, a bubble group consisting of a family and a few friends will celebrate a 50th birthday on the waters of Halifax Harbour.

“We only take 12 passengers per tour . . . so it doesn’t take much to have a full boat,” says Farwell.

“I’m hopeful that things will be OK. We’re starting the season and I’m seeing bookings already.”

The Pivot is a regular business feature showcasing an Atlantic Canadian company adapting to new market realities with innovative products, services or strategies. To suggest a business, e-mail: pivot@saltwire.com.

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